Plotting v. Seat of Pants (updated)

Experts who happen to be plotters will tell you their method is the right way to write. Seat-of-pants authors (pantsers) swear by their method and got published that way, too. I believe your personality is a good basis for deciding which writing method is right for you. Especially consider whether you prefer to rely on your intuition (N) or prefer to rely on your senses (S) and whether you are judging (J) or perceiving (P). If you’re an SJ, you’re probably a natural born plotter and should stick to it. If you’re an NP, you probably are best at writing by the seat of your pants and should experiment with plotting techniques only to find the ones that will work with your natural strengths.

If you don’t already know your personality type, if pure seat-of-pants comes naturally to you and always produces better results than plotting does, you’re likely an NP.

If you couldn’t write like a pantser to save your soul, the thought makes you shudder, and you’re tempted to think pantsers are lazy and unprofessional, you’re likely an SJ.

If you’re somewhere in between these two extremes, you’re probably an NJ or an SP. Note these are only general preferences. An SJ’s characters may on occasion decide to talk back. The SJ is simply going to be reluctant to listen and far more eager to force the character to follow the SJ’s carefully laid plans. Likewise, an NP can learn how to plot and plan and may choose to do so. They are simply going to be eager to listen to their characters’ input and reluctant to force compliance with the NP’s carefully laid plan.
Further, despite psychologists’ common belief, God can change your preferences over time. I used to be a clear NJ. Now I have almost as many Perceiving tendencies. That said, I do still show the tendency to borrow from both camps that you see with NJ personalities and SP personalities. SP writers will tend to plan ahead on paper, but will be flexible about the details, keep their options open, and make changes as need arises. In brief, for the SP, the plan was made to be deviated from if a better way came along.

As an NJ with a strengthening P side, I’ve always mentally walked through my scenes and eavesdropped on my characters ahead of writing anything down. Sometimes I start writing before I’ve finished this activity, and I only put any of my prep work on paper if a story requires a lot of research and world-building details that I fear I’ll forget.

That was the case with one of the second of the novels that go with Users of Web Surfer, a collection of ten shorter works Helping Hands Press plans to publish. Most of the time, my NJ brain manages to hold onto an amount of advanced prep work that would amaze SJs who always write everything down. Especially when my main character is an AI-Man whose life is full of paradoxes. By the grace of God, I even came back strong after a concussion stole five hours of my life and misplaced my mental notes while I was writing the first draft of the first full Web Surfer novel.

As for my general methodology, I know one other NJ author who works the same way and is also good at keeping track of things in his head, though he has stereotypical male strengths and I have stereotypical female strengths. NJs typically like to have everything pinned down before we start, but just like we’ll write our mental notes down if we feel a particular project needs it, we’ll go fishing like a SOP if it feels right for that book.

The plotter’s favorite critiques of pantsers would absolutely be true for the plotter. Due to the way natural pantsers’ brains prefer to process data, the method’s effectiveness for them depends upon the knowledge the pantser has fed themselves with in terms of plot and novel structure. An intuitive who knows how to properly structure and plot a novel will actually produce similar results to a plotter with an ounce of flexibility in him/her.

Yes, Plotter, an intuitive can study plot structure rules and techniques, mentally jot them down, and, with practice, learn how to intuitively knock out a carefully plotted novel while having done no advanced planning as far as a computer or pen and paper can detect. This seems impossible or unlikely to you because you are not wired for that. If the intuitive writer’s sanity is fairly questioned, though, there is a method to our madness.

Andrea Graham studied creative writing and religion at Ashland University, has been envisioning fantastic worlds since age six, and has been writing science fiction novels since she was fourteen. She’s signed a contract for her Web Surfer books with Helping Hands Press and has co-authored novels that were primarily by her husband, Adam Graham. She encourages readers at christsglory.com and offers assistance to writers at povbootcamp.com. Andrea and Adam live with their cat, Joybell, in Boise, Idaho.

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